A Look Back at Allen Ginsberg (Part 1)
Updated: Jan 15
William F. Buckley Jr. (1925–2008) introduced Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) to the audience at the May 7, 1968, edition of Firing Line as according to The New York Times perhaps the most famous and admired contemporary American poet. Praise from the liberal Times was something of a set-up for the mild put-down that followed. Although published maybe in more languages than any other contemporary American, Ginsberg was in Buckley's estimation known in America "less as a poet than as a prophet, the hippie's hippie, the bohemian's prototype…unconventional in all matters," radical in politics, socialist, openly homosexual, "concerning drugs he is all for it."
Ginsberg responded by pointing out that "hippie" was a stereotype. It was hard to generalize, he said, except to the extent that what was called the hippie movement involved an alteration of consciousness toward some greater awareness and individuality, which, smiling, he suggested Buckley might even sympathize with. Hopefully the future would see the spread of that gentleness and consideration coming through politically and artistically and maybe even on television. At this Buckley smiled back and said, not quite in jest, "Not quite yet."
This opening exchange between the archconservative Buckley and the bohemian's prototype Ginsberg was congenial and respectful, as was indeed the entire interview, even when there was disagreement about police brutality, Vietnam, Lenny Bruce, and certain "dirty words" Ginsberg had earlier been instructed by a producer not to use. Ginsberg found the prohibition objectionable because it prevented him from reading his best known poems, written in the language and about subjects of conversation with his friends and thus fitting for poetry, and from providing Buckley's middle-class audience with "data" about police brutality against hippies and black people by citing language police use during encounters with them.
Ginsberg was a better fit for the tradition of bohemian poet, artist, intellectual, than the hippie stereotype. He showed up for Firing Line wearing a tie, sport jacket, and jeans, a look more rumpled English professor than flower child. Two decades later, teaching a class on the craft of poetry at NYU, he was described by Elissa Schappell, a grad student in the creative writing program, as "professorial in his gray flannel jacket and dark-blue knife-creased trousers." He surprised his students by calling roll on the first day and at every class thereafter and was invariably cranky when someone arrived late. "Then to confuse those of us who thought this class would be beating on bongos and barking haiku into the ether, he passes out the standard old literature class standby—a syllabus. In fact, there are two" ("The Craft of Poetry: A Semester with Allen Ginsberg," Beat Writers at Work).
Ginsberg's delight with himself and his poem came through as he read "Wales Visitation" (at 17:30 on the video), written under the influence of LSD late July and early August 1967, while Buckley attentively. At the conclusion, Buckley said, "I like that," and added that he thought the poem very beautiful. At other points in the show Ginsberg railed against the crusading militant church, contrasting the gnostic tradition with the whore of Babylon. He called out the Catholic Cardinal Spellman as a key figure who got together with Nixon to start the Vietnam war by backing Ngo Dinh Diem, at which Buckley fairly blurted, "You believe that myth?" Ginsberg stuck to his guns and went on to suggest that the US buy off Ho Chi Minh and Mao as an alternative to using napalm. Buckley responded good-naturedly, "If you keep this up I'll ask you to read more poetry.… It's just that in politics you are a little bit naïve." Fair enough, in my own estimation.
Buckley was mistaken when he downplayed the perception of Ginsberg as a poet and missed the mark a bit with the "hippie's hippie" crack. Ginsberg predated the hippie phenomenon as a central figure of the earlier Beat Generation, itself a media stereotype. I think it was Gary Snyder who observed that the Beat Generation was really four people: Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. Another friend, Herbert Huncke, a minor hoodlum and heroin addict, referred to them as "beat," meaning beat down, wasted. Kerouac looking through the lens of Catholic mysticism found in the word intimations of beatific. They were, said Corso, the daddies of what came after in the sixties.
Ginsberg's emergence as prophet of cultural revolution derived from the stature that went with being a poet, perhaps not quite as Corso put it, up there with king, emperor, pope, but exalted enough, in a tradition delineated by his early mentor William Carlos Williams, Blake, Whitman, and the Shelleyan sense of poet as unacknowledged legislator of the world. Ginsberg may not have been held in high regard in academic circles and within the poetry establishment of that era, but he was a major figure among poets associated with the midcentury San Francisco Renaissance in whose work the influence of European avant-gardes and various schools of Asian poetry might be more readily discernible than the English poetry tradition students of my generation encountered in high school textbooks.
Kenneth Rexroth organized and emceed the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, October 1955, where Ginsberg knocked out everyone in the room with his reading of "Howl" (also featured were Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder). A few days afterward Lawrence Ferlinghetti fired off a telegram to Ginsberg:
I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER [stop] WHEN DO I GET MANUSCRIPT OF "HOWL" [stop] LAWRENCE (FERLINGHETTI) CITY LIGHTS BOOKSTORE.
The opening sentence came from Ralph Waldo Emerson's letter to Walt Whitman after the publication of Leaves of Grass.
Rexroth was, in Ferlinghetti's words, "a kind of paterfamilias" when the Beat poets first made the scene in San Francisco, "the father figure of us all…a great polymath, a great essayist and critic with an anarchist point of view, and great poet" (Beat Writers at Work). Rexroth reckoned that 1955 was the beginning of a great change in American poetry similar to what had happened a few years earlier in painting with abstract expressionism and in music with found music and musique concrète. "It took things longer to get started in poetry," Rexroth wrote. "The Establishment was much more entrenched."
As in painting and music the change was in the medium. In fact, it was a change of medium—poetry as voice not as printing. The climacteric was not the publication of a book, it was the famous Six Gallery reading, the culmination of many years of oral presentation of poetry in San Francisco. Note that the hosts were a cooperative of then very young post-Abstract Expressionist painters who greeted the performance with joy. In the same year Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and myself were doing poetry to jazz all over the country. It didn't really matter if the Hudson Review printed us or not, and it never would have occurred to us to try.
At the Six Gallery Ginsberg "blew up the crust of custom and overturned a complacent Establishment. For years afterward they pretended he didn't exist, or called him a beatnik." From that point forward Ginsberg was in Rexroth's view dominant.
He started out a good Columbia English major, a student of Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and Mark Van Doren, producing, while still an undergraduate, wryly humorous poems that owed much to the simpler pieces of William Carlos Williams. He came to San Francisco and met the other poets there who had always considered his masters at Columbia, along with John Crowe Ransom and his friends, The General Staff of the Enemy. He learned fast. The libertarianism, personalism, internationalism of San Francisco exploded him. (Rexroth, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, 1971)
Ginsberg's personality had maybe as much to do with his impact as did the quality of his poetry. His generosity was instinctive. Belief in the genius of his friends and his own genius, belief in the importance of what they were all doing, was authentic and deeply held and made an impression. Again, Rexroth, writing circa 1970:
It's not that Ginsberg is the greatest poet of the Fifties, although he is a very good one, it's that he had the most charismatic personality. The only poet in my time to compare with him in effect on audiences was Dylan Thomas, and Dylan Thomas was essentially a performer, whereas Ginsberg meant something of the greatest importance and so his effects have endured and permeated the whole society, and Thomas's have not.
Ginsberg is the only one of his immediate associates who outgrew the nihilistic alienation of the Beat Generation and moved on to the positive counter culture which developed in the Sixties. He was the spokesman of the lost youth of 1955 and he remained a spokesman of the youth who were struggling to found an alternative society in 1970. His influence is enormous, as great in India or Sweden or underground behind the Iron Curtain as it is in America.
William Carlos Williams wrote in the introduction for Howl and Other Poems (1956) that "Howl" is "an arresting poem." Ginsberg "proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist.… Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels." Williams closed his generous remarks with what might in the present era of assiduously cultivated sensitivity be termed a trigger warning: "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell."
Reaction within certain precincts of the poetry establishment was fierce. James Dickey held that "Ginsberg has done more harm to the craft that I honor and live by than anybody else by reducing it to a kind of mean that enables the most dubious practitioners to claim they are poets because they think, if the kind of thing Ginsberg does is poetry, I can do that" (BrainyQuote; alas, I am unable to locate the source where I originally read this, maybe an interview somewhere). He referred to "Howl" as "a whipped-up state of excitement…it takes more than this to make poetry" (Allen Ginsberg page at Poetry Foundation). Michael Schmidt opens his section on Ginsberg in Lives of the Poets (2000) with a kindred sentiment expressed by Theodore Roethke, who numbered among his "more tedious contemporaries…the roaring asses, hysterics, sweet-myself beatniks, earless wonders happy with effects a child of two could improve on." Though not named Ginsberg is an obvious suspect as target of Roethke's scorn.
James Dickey and Theodore Roethke were not just a pair of disgruntled nonentities. They were prominent figures in their own right, though of lesser eminence than Williams. Dickey received a National Book Award for Buckdancer's Choice, served as poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, and was an English professor and writer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina when I was a student there in the early 1970s. On occasion I spotted him swaggering through the halls of the Humanities building but never had any interaction with him. Roethke won the Pulitizer Prize for Poetry in 1954, the National Book Award twice, and taught at Michigan State University and the University of Washington. Dickey's high regard for Roethke provides a glimpse at his own aesthetic sensibility and penchant for hyperbole: "I don't see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke's got. Whitman was a great poet, but he's no competition for Roethke" (Theodore Roethke page at Poetry Foundation). I do not know how representative of the professoriate they were but suspect it fair to presume they were not outliers.
More balanced appraisal can be found on Ginsberg's side of the barricades. His friend and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti thought Ginsberg himself was a genius but his influence on younger poets was not always positive.
If the mind is comely, everything that mind produces is comely. I'm paraphrasing Allen. But when you have many students taking classes using the graph of consciousness [an approach drawing from Ginsberg's mantra "first thought, best thought," Kerouac's ideas about spontaneous prose, loose talk about the sin of revision, etc.] technique, you get many minds that really aren't all that interesting. They're not genius conceivers and their poems may be quite boring. (Beat Writers at Work)
Ferlinghetti expanded on this theme in another interview:
Allen had a genius mind. He had a pack-rat mind. I remember when I went down to Australia with him. He wrote down everything…the names of trees…he stopped and asked the natives what kind of worm was crawling out of the ground. And he would buy stuff. He started off in San Francisco. He went to the Army and Navy store where he bought a huge empty duffel bag…. By the time we got to Australia, he had it full. You know, a medicine man's chopsticks, whatever, gourds and masks and things. A fascinating mind. But then when you have this same poetics practice by all these thousands of students who don't have the sensibility of the original creators of this style, this poetics, it makes for very boring poetry. I've seen the best minds of our generation destroyed by boredom at poetry readings. (San Francisco Beat)
Ferlinghetti was speaking here of Ginsberg at the height of his powers. He found later works to be of lesser quality. Ginsberg started out with "this really great discipline for economy of prose and direct statement" but in Ferlinghetti's view did not develop beyond that. "He wanted to be a rock star, instead. Allen wanted to be more and more a performance poet with music on stage…performing with Bob Dylan, for instance, and hanging out with the Beatles. I think it did his poetry a lot of harm."
Poet Anne Waldman, cofounder with Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, made a similar observation when she described being with him on Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review tour in the 1970s: "Allen was in heaven with the energy of the scene, but yearned to be included onstage, always the frustrated rock & roller" (Rolling Stone Book of the Beats).
Ginsberg was a compelling reader of his poems, as recordings of "Howl" at Reed College in 1975 and "Wales Visitation" show. His gifts as a songwriter and musical performer are modest at best. Lyrics with pedestrian rhymes, erratic rhythms, and simplistic sloganeering do not measure up on the page or in droning performances (for example: A Ballad of American Skeletons, accompanied by Paul McCartney on guitar; Father Death Blues, where he accompanies himself on harmonium).
In 1957 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books and City Lights Publishers, and bookstore manager Shig Murao were arrested and tried for knowingly selling obscenity. They were released on bail posted by the ACLU pending a court decision on the obscenity charge. Judge Clayton W. Horn found that "Howl" was not lacking in social importance and therefore could not be ruled obscene in a decision that included a nice critical synopsis of the poem:
The first part of "Howl" presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity and mechanization leading toward war. The third presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition…"Footnote to Howl" [the final section of the poem] seems to be a declamation that everything in the world is holy, including parts of the body by name. It ends in a plea for holy living. (quoted by Gilmore, "Allen Ginsberg 1926–1997," Rolling Stone Book of the Beats)
to be continued